I recommend the book highly even if you don't actually wind up building what's in it, because the drawings are really helpful for understanding how to avoid thermal bridges, how to detail the airtight seals between floors, walls and ceiling, and also for ideas about what sort of material to use. I searched it carefully for details that would work for our foundation, but it didn't cover the case we originally designed: a house on a frostwall foundation with no basement. It had some drawings that were very helpful for thinking about how to detail the foundation, and when Marc and Andrea and I were brainstorming about how to build the actual foundation, that detail was very helpful in figuring out what to do (although Marc might argue that it led to me being obsessed with details that weren't all that important).
What the book does not cover at all, however, is how to do a floor when your house is on a pier foundation. Both Marc and Peter were a bit concerned about how that was going to work, but it went pretty well in the PHPP model. Normally in a slab foundation, you'd lay down a really thick layer of expanded polystyrene foam insulation (EPS). This would isolate the interior of the house from the ground. Typically the ground under the house will be warmer than ambient, though, so the EPS doesn't have to do as much work as our floor has to do to keep the house warm.
So we are going with a fairly thick floor—11 7/8" thick, with 4" of polyisocyanurate rigid foam insulation. The floor joists will be I-joists, to minimize thermal bridging. The insulation between the floor joists will be dense-packed cellulose. One really nice thing about this is that the floor will have a lot less foam in it than a typical floor—only 4", rather than the typical 8" or more of styrofoam insulation below the slab that you'd see in a Passivhaus.
An additional complication is that normally to get a good air barrier on the slab of a Passivhaus, you'd have a polyethylene membrane under the slab. This would then connect to the wall air barrier with some kind of sticky tape or expanding foam tape. We don't have that option with the floor box, because there's no place to put the polyethylene membrane.
Instead, the bottom of the box will be sheathed with zip sheathing. Zip sheathing provides an excellent air barrier. The edges of each piece of zip sheathing will be taped together. Remember, this tape is on the bottom of the sheathing. The bottom of the sheathing will be resting on the LVL beam or on the pressure-treated sill plate. This means that the sheathing has to be taped before it's nailed to the plate or to the beam.
In order to accomplish this, Eli's team is going to build the floor box in sections, upside down. They are going to tape the seams on the bottom of each section before flipping that section. When the time comes to install the sections, they will (handwaving, Eli, help!) to seal the joins between the sections.
The joint between the floor-bottom sheathing and the outer wall sheathing will be sealed with a gasket or caulk, as shown below. I'm not sure what sort of gasket to use if we go that route. We'd talked about using iso-bloco tape to seal the edge, but that stuff is very expensive. Another option would be to use EPDM gaskets. I don't know how much the EPDM gaskets cost—maybe they're just as expensive—but I suspect they are cheaper. It may also be that caulk is a good option, although I've heard arguments to the contrary.
Our building site was relatively quiet last week. Concrete is curing, and our electrician set up the main panel and meter in anticipation of CVPS turning on the electricity this week. Ted and I also spoke with several solar installers to see about getting some PV panels at the roof ridge and also a solar hot water system. More on that as it unfolds.
The biggest news is that we recently partnered with Efficiency Vermont to pursue Passivhaus certification [follow the link to read their "About Us" page]. The cool part is that our house will be part of a research project to evaluate the suitability of Passivhaus construction for Vermont. They'll install monitoring equipment in our house and closely study its performance.
Peter Schneider, Efficiency Vermont's Passivhaus consultant, was particularly interested in studying our house because it has several unusual features: a pier foundation and partial shading. Vermont's abundance of sloping, ledgy lots makes pier foundation a tempting solution, and of course trees are rampant hereabouts. So hopefully we'll provide useful data for would-be Passivhausers in North America.
Peter was on vacation last week, so he hasn't gotten farther than the first few rounds of PHPP tweaking, but Marc helped pick up the slack. This will all probably change this week, and I'm probably jinxing things just by typing this, but so far it looks like we can pull off Passivhaus performance with the following general specs:
11-7/8″ I-joist floor deck (16 oc), stuffed with dense-pack cellulose and with 4″ of polyiso underneath.
9.5″ I-joist wall framing (24 oc) filled with dense-pack cellulose and with 4″ of exterior polyiso.
Schuco SI-82+ windows, which we ordered this week from European Architectural Supply in Lincoln, MA. The windows are PH-certified and made from uPVC. Yes yes, PVC is evil, but this is unplasticized PVC which is apparently a bit less evil. It's made without phthalates and can be recycled, at least in Europe. But hopefully the windows won't need recycling for a long long time.
Climatop Max and Climatop Ultra-N glass. The glass offered by Schuco is pretty darn impressive. For the south windows we upgraded to Climatop Max, which has a SHGC of 0.6, but for the rest of the house we went with the Climatop Ultra-N, which has an SHGC of 0.5. All the glass has a Ug of 0.105 (which PHPP callously rounds up to 0.11).
We haven't decided for sure on the HRV yet, but we'll probably either do the Zehnder ComfoAir 350 or the Paul by Zehnder Novus 300. The latter adds about $1,400 to the already formidable cost, but the efficiency is 93% as opposed to the ComfoAir's 84%, which would win us quite a bit within PHPP. Another knob to turn would be to add more polyiso under the floor or use larger I-joists — we'll hopefully do the cost-benefit analysis this week and reach a verdict.
It seems like the biggest advantage in our design is the ludicrously simple house shape. We're basically building a shoebox with a shed roof, which means there aren't many corners or thermal bridges undermining our envelope. Marc, Ben, and Eli already minimized thermal bridging before we decided to go for Passivhaus certification, so we're picking up a lot of PHPP points without having to change our plans.
We're waiting on a few more details, though, including some THERM data Peter is confirming with PHIUS. Hopefully that won't kick us back out of the ballpark, but as I said we still have some knobs left to turn.
After much waffling, Ted and I decided to bite the bullet and go for Passivhaus certification. More on this soon, but in the meantime we're busily weighing envelope upgrades in search of the best (read: cheapest) path to 4.75 kBTU/(f2year).
I am superstitious and have no immediate plans to change the website name. The web address, of course, will not change. I am now grateful that I was unable to get http://www.almostpassive.com, which is boldly carrying out its mission to tell visitors "All You Need To Earn Almost Passive Income Online! "
In other news I made a new house rendering, but don't get too attached because I'm likely to change it again in a few days. The new rendering places the solar panels on the top awning, which will be almost entirely unshaded and can fit 4.76 kW of DC goodness.
Things that will change in the next rendering are:
The colors, which are currently quite ugly. We may also change the ratio of cedar shingle and reverse board and batten siding.
The terrain and foundation, since our building site is a wooded rocky hillside and not an eerie CAD plain.
Awnings will appear over the lower windows, though they might be removable in some way to allow full winter heat gains.
A solar collector for hot water might appear in the gap between the two groups of windows, assuming we can afford it.
More to come!
Edited to correct Passivhaus heating requirement units
Things are going swimmingly. They poured the piers yesterday, and the dismal unending rain means that the concrete will probably cure to maximum strength. We've also hammered out all sorts of details with Eli, Marc, and Ben, and a lot of problems and challenges seem to be melting away. I figured out a more attractive and efficient way to add solar electric and hot water (new drawings forthcoming), and everything is looking great.
The problem? Our many envelope tweaks and revisions have brought us tantalizingly close to Passivhaus performance levels. This is bad simply because we now have to decide whether to bite the bullet and pay the extra $3,000 (or more) to make it happen.
The return on investment will be lousy. The difference in utility costs between the house we're building and a certified Passivhaus will probably be less than $40/year. We've already ordered Passivhaus-certified windows and are seriously considering paying extra for a Passivhaus-certified HRV because of its many good features. And of course we've minimized thermal bridging in the envelope and are wrapping the house in heaps and heaps of dense-pack cellulose, plus a 4" exoskeleton of polyisocyanurate.
But we haven't paid the $1,500 (give or take) to have Marc model the house in PHPP, the über-spreadsheet that analyzes every detail of a house's energy performance. And you can't have a certified Passivhaus without running it through PHPP.
Of course, PHPP is only the first step. Odds are that we'll fall a little shy of the Passivhaus performance requirements, so our next move will be to add more insulation somewhere or tighten up the envelope a bit better. And that will cost more money than it will ever save us.
So why bother? I don't think I'm attached to having a certified Passivhaus. As you can see from the name of the website, I'm quite satisfied with our not-quite-passiv status. Also, I seriously doubt it will make a difference on resale whether the house is certified or not, since it's going to be a freaky-efficient house either way.
But there's a symbolic value to getting certified. Only a handful of certified Passive Houses have been built in the United States, which means it's still an inspiring new concept. One of our major goals in building an energy-efficient house is to inspire other builders and homeowners, and having the Passivhaus label and certificate will help get the word out.
Several people working on the house, both directly and peripherally, have told me how exciting it is to work on such an efficient design. They really like seeing someone do it right and not cut corners on energy performance. We're trying to practice "trickle-down green building," meaning that the way we're building this house will hopefully catch on and eventually become the new normal, at least to some degree. Building an actual Passive House rather than an Almost Passive House might further this goal.
Does that count, or should we just return to the ROI and call it a day? I should add that building an affordable house is another one of our goals, because it's not very inspiring if only people with endlessly deep pockets can build this way.
I was recently asked a simple but excellent question: What makes it passive?
The word "passive" turns up a lot in green building, and it can refer to several different things. When I say we're building an almost passive house, I'm referring to the Passivhaus building approach that was standardized in Europe and inspired by energy-efficient building methods pioneered in North America. The Passive House Institute US site summarizes:
A "passive" house achieves overall energy savings of 60-70% and 90% of space heating without applying expensive "active" technologies like photovoltaics or solar thermal hot water systems. Energy losses are minimized, and gains are maximized. Superinsulation and air-tight construction minimize losses.
Passivhaus certification is somewhat easier to attain in Europe than in North America, mostly because of their relatively moderate climate, but also because you can buy much whizzier building products over there (see my post on European windows).
After a considerable amount of waffling, Ted and I decided not to go for full Passivhaus certification, but we're still planning to use as many passive house techniques as we can (superinsulation, avoiding thermal bridges, sealing the house extremely tightly, using mechanical fresh-air systems, etc.).
In passive solar building design, windows, walls, and floors are made to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter (Passive Solar Heating) and reject solar heat in the summer (Passive Solar Cooling). This is called "passive" solar design (or climatic design) because, unlike "active" ( solar heating, photovoltaic, etc.) solar systems, passive solar systems do not involve the use of mechanical or electrical devices, fans, pumps, etc.
Passive solar home design was undoubtedly discovered by cave dwellers who noticed that south-facing caves were more comfortable year-round than caves facing other directions (cave dwellers in the southern hemisphere would have chosen north-facing caves). This is because the sun is angled low in winter and high in summer, meaning that winter light and heat will penetrate deeply into a south-facing cave, and summer sunlight will be blocked by the cave overhang. Furthermore, a cave with a solid earth floor retains winter heat gains even after sunset, because earth floors have a high thermal mass which absorbs heat during the day and then slowly releases it at night.
The cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado are the textbook example of passive solar building. The dwellings face south and are protected from the hot summer sun by a gigantic overhang, but during the winter they are bathed in light.
The advent of mechanical heating and cooling systems made it easier for builders to ignore passive solar techniques. The problem got worse when people started building houses with ginormous windows, often facing a nice view in a direction other than south. Ted's parents' house has a great room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing a lovely view toward the west. Every afternoon the room is flooded with light, which brings welcome solar gains in winter (they can turn off their heater for much of the day) but way too much heat during the summer.
It is much easier to achieve Passivhaus certification if you maximize solar gains with clever window placement, thereby reducing the need for mechanical heating. Our building site isn't perfect for passive solar since we have quite a few trees blocking the sun toward the south, but it's not too bad, particularly since most of those trees will lose their leaves every autumn.
To get the maximum bang for our passive solar buck, I used SketchUp to simulate the solar shading at different times of year. I entered our latitude and longitude, and then I told SketchUp to show me what shadows will form on different dates (including the date of this blog post). Our house has big windows facing south, so they'll be our primary source for solar gain, and I tweaked the length of the roof overhang so it will admit plenty of sun in winter without allowing too much unwanted summer heat:
We're being careful to order windows with a high solar heat gain coefficient (SHCG), which means that the glass won't filter out too much of the warm sunlight. Again, refer to my future post on windows for more about SHGC.
My current enormous task is to design a complete framing plan. I am literally mapping out exactly where every single stud and beam will go, which I hope will save us a lot of effort when we're working with actual lumber. I'm keeping a running list of questions to ask Marc and our structural engineer, just to make sure we're not doing anything too stupid.
Obviously our primary goal here is structural soundness, but my driving obsession is to Avoid Thermal Bridges. This is one of the central tenets of Passivhaus construction, so I thought I'd tear myself away from SketchUp for a few minutes and explain what this actually means.
To paraphrase Homes for a Changing Climate, thermal bridges are the path of least resistance for heat to flow out from a house. They occur when an element in the house has higher heat conductivity than the surrounding materials. For example, a balcony slab that isn't thermally isolated from an interior concrete floor can suck the heat right out of the house.
The most common thermal bridge in a wood-frame house might be the wall studs themselves. In a 2x6 wall, studs extend through the thickness of the wall. The inside of a stud wall is normally covered by drywall sheets on the inside of the house and cladding outside the house. In the diagram at the right, you can see that the wall is full of fiberglass insulation, except for where the studs are. So the insulated parts of the wall will have an R-value of, say, R-19, but the studs themselves are only about R-6, meaning that much more heat will escape through the studs than through the insulation batts.
We plan to address this in several ways. One is to raise the wall's overall R-value by putting additional rigid foam insulation outside the stud assembly, beneath the exterior cladding. Another is to use as few studs as we can get away with. To accomplish this we are using Optimum Value Engineering, which does all sorts of clever tricks to minimize the amount of lumber used in construction.
So in a nutshell that's what I've been doing, trying to design our house frame with as few thermal bridges as possible. It's a little trickier than it sounds, at least for a construction neophyte like me.
Incidentally, here's a peek at the framing plan so far. It's missing most of the windows and, notably, a roof, but you get the idea.
Ordinary houses breathe through leaky joints and poor seals, losing heat and wasting energy. But our house won't leak, so we'll use a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to admit fresh air and expel stale air, transferring heat from one stream to the other.